Review – Cohen, “The Netanyahus”

Joshua Cohen, “The Netanyahus” (2021) (read aloud by the author) – Did you know that Benjamin Netanyahu lived in the US, mostly in Philadelphia and New York state, as a child with his family? I did but now have had it dramatized by Josh Cohen, one of the brighter young things out there in contemporary American letters, in this often-amusing novel. I don’t know if “bright young things” (he’s forty, I’m pretty sure, but hey, we live in a gerontocracy) want their books regarded as amusing, especially if they previously wrote what I’m told are great big difficult humdingers, but there it is. Supposedly, Cohen based this book on an anecdote told by the great old opinionmonger of American letters, Harold Bloom. Bloom loved getting in what passes for celeb gossip in wordy circles, and he liked to tell a story about hosting Benzion Netanyahu, his wife, and three preteen children, the middle of whom would grow up to be Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, for a disastrous job talk at a university.

Cohen’s narrator, historian of taxation Ruben Blum, doesn’t have Harold’s job or his mad self-mythologizing swagger. He’s a humbler sort, but doing pretty well for himself, holding a tenure track job at small upstate New York Corbin College, has a nice house, a wife, a high school aged daughter. But life isn’t necessarily so great for him. He speaks from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, but in the early 1960s, he has many of the insecurities of upwardly mobile, assimile American Jews (similar to those faced by writers Cohen admires, most notably Philip Roth): the general upper-middle-class malaise of the time, combined with uncertainty of how he really fit in to the culture. Blum is irked – but quiet, impotent – when his drunk WASP-y gladhandler department chair has him, the only Jew in the department, shepherd a Jew the department is considering hiring, one Benzion Netanyahu. Things only get worse when Benzion turns up on the Blum doorstep, during a snowstorm, with a wife, three pre-teen boys, and numerous ideas and eccentricities in tow. 

Cohen gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting ideas of what it is to be a Jew. Blum is the assimilationist midcentury Jew, a WWII veteran and supposedly successful assimilationist. His in-laws are upper-middle-class Manhattan German-descended Jews, and his parents reasonably well-off but less “classy” Bronx Ashkenazim, and we get minutely observed takes on both as they interact with Blum and his family. The Netanyahus represent an altogether different take on Jewishness. It’s not even so much the Jewishness of Zionism, in Cohen’s depiction – all the Jews in the book accept Zionism of some sort – as much as that of radical, revisionist Zionism… though, as someone who’s known a fair few Israelis, including little Israeli kids, in my day, the Netanyahu family in the book lived up to some cultural traits I’ve observed. They’re loud, blunt, bold. They’re a little more like the less-assimilated Blum grandparents, but with a different reaction to the fear and horrors Jews encountered in the twentieth century: straightforward aggression and truculence. The kids are funny, and there’s some slapstick as they tear-ass around the place, both more “childish” seeming and more knowing than American kids their age- that’s been my observation of Israeli kids, for what it’s worth. 

One question this brought up for me: stereotypes! Are they “good writing” if they’re used self-consciously, as they are here, by an in-group member? How about with “good intentions” by an out-group member? What makes in or out group members, anyway, for literary purposes? Where does exploring identity end and stereotype begin? Who’s to say? I wasn’t offended by any of it, but I wear my Jewishness pretty light. 

In any event, Benzion Netanyahu and his family pose challenges for the Blums, and not just logistical ones. Benzion’s work was notionally on the history of the Jews of Iberia, but really, it was about the Spanish Inquisition (unexpected, I know!). That Inquisition is weirder and creepier than most, because instead of persecuting heretics, it persecuted Christians. The Spanish Inquisition hunted Christians of Jewish descent, many of whom were in families that had been Christian for generations, from conversions made, mostly not at swordpoint, to Christianity after the Christians started conquering much of Spain and Portugal. If anything, the Inquisition undid what Christians supposedly wanted all this time: the conversion of the Jews. From this baffling situation of terror and violence, and from his immersion in the violent, tragic, fascist-leaning Revisionist Zionism of his master Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Benzion Netanyahu extracted the lesson that Jews and Christians would never live in peace together. Moreover, he came to think that the Jews were forced into history – away from a temporal order defined by scripture and myth – by the exterminationist violence of Gentiles. 

Needless to say, this is not a viewpoint which Corbin College was ready for, and one which rubs even an American Jew with as finely honed a sense of irony as our Ruben raw. Benzion irritates him, with his theories, his brusqeness, his occasional dishonesty (there’s a pretty funny bit where Benzion tries to get Ruben to lie to a rabbi about a borrowed car the Netanyahus fucked up), and his showing of Ruben’s ass. You don’t need to agree with Benzion’s Revisionism to think that maybe he has some points about the role of Jews in Western societies. Quite beyond shocking staid WASP academics and forcing Ruben into uncomfortable self-examination, the Netanyahus, Benzion’s brassy wife and half-wild children, introduce chaos into the Blum home. Ruben’s frustrated, overeducated/underemployed wife and deeply insecure daughter both wind up in the whirlwind, and publicly, in a way that scotches Benzion’s employment chances. 

All told, this was both psychologically involved – Ruben never accepts Benzion’s views or the impositions of his family, seeing them for the violent, uncouth, and disruptive forces that they are, though he can no more entirely reject Benzion’s critiques than he can boot his family into the snow they haven’t got the shoes for, until forced to – and narratively satisfying. It’s a tad “too cute” in places, in the way of literary writers who think they’re funny, but also gets some real laughs. David Duchovny is listed in the audiobook credits, for a sort of cameo he does as a rabbi who recommends Benzion (probably to get him off Philadelphia’s hands), but I’m not sure why they went with him for that? Anyway. All in all, decent. ****

Review – Cohen, “The Netanyahus”

Review – Yurick, “The Warriors”

Sol Yurick, “The Warriors” (1965) (read aloud by Joel Richards) – The sports teams of my hometown high school (which I did not attend because I am a special prince) are called “the Warriors,” and I’ve been told that none of their rivals, in the unnamed corner of Massachusetts from which I came, taunt them by calling out “Waaaaaarriors, come out and plaaaaaaaaay!” You’re leaving money on the table, Mansfield, Sharon, King Philip, North Attleboro! Money on the table.

Maybe kids don’t watch “The Warriors” these days, but they should, because it’s a fun movie. It’s based on a book! Sol Yurick was a journeyman writer of what today might be called thrillers when his experience as a schoolteacher and social worker in his native New York inspired him to write a novel about the youth gangs that were, at the time, a city institution. He famously based the plot on Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” an Athenian account of ten thousand Greek mercenaries, stranded deep in the Persian Empire after a botched job, fighting their way back to Greece. Here, a youth gang from Coney Island has gone to the North Bronx for a big meeting of the gangs. The meeting goes badly wrong, all the gangs flee, and these kids have to make their way home in the dark, weird 1960s New York night. Complications ensue!

This isn’t the most dramatic example of a book being worse than the cinematic adaptation – “Children of Men” probably takes the cake there, though “The Godfather” and “Starship Troopers” are also in the running – but the movie is definitely better. Yurick (who grew up with the Popular Front and was a SDS supporter at this time) was trying to do a pulpy version of social realism. That’s cool and all, but it’s not as fun as the movie’s delirious world. The gangs are all more or less the same in the book, maybe with different racial makeups or outfits, but nothing like the Baseball Furies or the kaleidoscope of opposing forces in the movie. The meeting of the gangs and the speech the biggest gang leader makes, calling on them to seize the city, lacks the intensity of the speech in the movie, no refrain of “Caaaaan… you… DIG IT??!!” There’s no plot to blame the protagonists for the betrayal of the gang king in the book, no real rival gang- just the difficulties of traversing the city at night when you’re a gang kid in a city of rival gang kids. The Warriors in the movie have some other silly name in the book. Basically, the screenwriters and directors of the adaptation took the kernel of the story and made it cooler, and arguably got the classical world Yurick was borrowing from better, in its “gigantism and ineptitude” as Borges put it, its comic book colors. 

One thing both the filmmakers and Yurick strive to get across is a sort of non-Christian (or non-post-Christian, fairly similar), Achaean-style ethics motivating the gang youth. Whatever money-making schemes they might have, these aren’t the sort of youth gangs we got familiar from with the crack epidemic. These are just neighborhood kids who fight other neighbor kids, have their own little street world with its own rules and rituals. It may be a counter-world but there’s no hippie levity- they take it deadly seriously. Probably the most interesting parts of the book for me were the negotiations over status and ritual between rival gangs, as the Warriors try to move from place to place, gang territory to gang territory, without violence. It’s a world seriously invested in the manner in which people, other kids mostly, walk down a sidewalk, where their eyes go. People have potentially lethal fights over that! I’m acquainted with the desire for violence, especially on the part of teenage boys, but even at my most testosterone-poisoned, I never paid that much attention to gait (probably helped that I was in the suburbs- people drove). There’s also distinctly different ideas about gender and consent. Rape is considered to be on the spectrum with provocative eyeballing, more severe, but very much “on the table” and in the open as far as the moral code of the rumbling kids is concerned. That’s something the filmmakers softened- one of the Warriors in the movie gets fresh with a woman in the park and winds up in cuffs, but things get a lot worse in the book. Yurick observes all this in a cool, detached, somewhat regretful (“the cast-offs of society,” contrasts between gestures of childlike innocence and desire for a sense of family with the violent and amoral behavior of the gang kids) air. A “this is the way it is” from someone on the social work front lines. It’s not bad. Paul Verhoeven found the kernel of satire in a deeply bad book when he adapted “Starship Troopers,” the exploitation filmmakers who adapted “The Warriors” found the epic that was always there in the somewhat self-serious novel that couldn’t decide if it was about thrills or about sadness. ***

Review – Yurick, “The Warriors”

Piper, “Uller Uprising”

This cover is way cooler than the book

H. Beam Piper, “Uller Uprising” (1952) – Well, I think after two books, I can put this dude on the list of “old scifi hands I’ve learned enough about, and who aren’t compelling enough to pursue anymore.” I read “Kalvan of Otherwhen,” one of the original “conquering a primitive alternate dimension” stories about a Pennsylvania state trooper conquering, like, Hittite Pennsylvania… a fun premise, but wasted in dull depictions of maneuvers across the map of the alt-Keystone State. I’ve now given the beginning of Piper’s Terra-Human Empire series a shot. The first novel is about humans who have lightly settled a pair of planets that supply some kind of space-resource. The natives have gotten restless! They’re, like, partially-silicate lizard people.

“Uller Uprising” is basically the Sepoy Mutiny, but in space, with humans taking up the role of British people and the space lizards as the people of India. But it’s a version of the Mutiny as told by a right-wing troll scifi writer. So the humans/British “only” want to mine their unobtainium (using lizard labor, effectively slaves but treated nicer than local practices, you see) and bring “progress” to the lizards, and dang old “progress-hating” “bigoted” (!!) lizards impelled by a lizard-prophet try to massacre them. At first the humans seem overwhelmed, but they get reinforcements and figure it out. Better, they steal a nuke mean lizards were going to use on them, so, you know, it’s ok when they use the weapon that readers still had a supernatural dread of in the early fifties. 

I say it’s trollish because Beam knows who actually had a grievance in India in the nineteenth century and he knows it wasn’t the British. He just likes the British side better, and likes stories of massacring mobs of “fanatical,” underarmed, underorganized opponents (still a popular trope, everywhere from zombie stuff to contemporary military stories), and wants a moral excuse to do so. Piper was known as a “contrarian” or whatever, like a lot of those old guys — Niven, Heinlein, whoever — were supposed to be, but they still always wanted the moral high ground, they couldn’t just tell stories about killing sentient beings for fun. So Piper goes out of his way to show how smart and sensible (but tough!) the human corporation in charge is, how irrational the lizards in the sway of their prophets are, how the “good guy” rational lizards (think a patronizing British depiction of the Sikhs) are treated fine, the few humans with lizard-liberationist leanings are fools who quickly learn the score and marry tough human army guys, etc. The main character is descended from Argentine Nazis and is meant to be a Prussian officer stereotype, just for fun. 

The action is better than in “Kalvan.” Piper could have had a good book here. It wouldn’t even have to be, like… “good” in some moral or political sense, not hardly. But the action quality is not enough to make up for the smirking and ultimate lack of originality- if you know what happened to the Mutiny, you know what’s going to happen here. And don’t give me some shit about the joys of non-virtuous writing, or whatever. I’ve probably read eight books by good “edgy” writers for every (likely shitty) one you have, and this ain’t it, chief, not with all the cheating in the rigging Piper does. **’

Piper, “Uller Uprising”

Review – de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights”

Joseph de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights: Or, Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence” (1821) (translated from the French by Richard Lebrun) – Insofar as Joseph de Maistre has a reputation in the anglophone world, it’s as the arch-orthodox monarchist conservative. No sentimentality, no Whig background like his British opposite number, Burke: this is the dude who wrote a rhapsody to the hangman as the basis of the social order. Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay about Maistre as forerunner of fascism (Maistre might be “fash” but not like that); Hari Kunzru had his altright TV writer villain insert Maistre speeches into the mouth of his renegade cop character. An air of limpid, cultured menace — think Hannibal Lecter — lingers around him.

Well, here’s a weird one- this supposed arch-orthodox, who was, by all accounts, a sincere and fervent Catholic, was also an “Illuminist” and a member of a Masonic lodge. This is an odd one. Catholic reactionaries aren’t supposed to like the Masons. In the anglophone Protestant countries, that’s mostly down to Masonic anti-Catholicism- I remember older Catholic relatives (not reactionaries) telling me if I had to join a fraternal order, it should be the Knights of Columbus, not the Masons. In continental Europe it’s a little more complicated. By and large, French reactionary culture has despised the Masons and the Enlightenment culture it was tied to. The Vichy regime had to be asked by the Nazis to round up French Jews, but they went after the Masons all on their own. At the same time, you do get groups like the P2 Masonic lodge, which assisted neofascist coup attempts in Italy, and Maistre’s lifelong involvement with Masonry and other mystical strains that weren’t exactly Catholic. Some of Maistre’s works made their way to the Vatican’s naughty list, even as Catholic presses translated and published his works. 

“Soirees de Saint-Petersbourg” was, I’ve read, the work Maistre was most proud of, his last statement. Beyond that hangman spiel, which comes from one of the early dialogues in this book, most of his work that gets circulated in academic circles is his earlier, more directly political stuff, regardless of what the man himself thought. This is probably in part because the dialogues here are… odd. Take the subtitle. “The temporal government of providence” – maybe it’s just grammatically awkward, and means “the way divine providence governs the affairs of time,” but as read in English, makes it sound like a time-bound governance system for the divine. That doesn’t make a lot of sense- as far as I can tell, one of the basic elements of divinity is that it’s not time-bound, not in the way human life is, at least. 

That’s just the subtitle. The dialogues themselves are a discussion between three dudes: a young, somewhat naive but polite “Chevalier,” a somewhat sententious but right-headed older “Count,” and “the Senator,” and when he starts talking, The_Wisdom_Dispenser has logged on. The Senator is Maistre, explaining how despite how it all looks, God has it all in hand. But not in some easy peasant way! It’s not all rainbows and meeting your pets in heaven. It’s closer to a state of divine justice, everything working out according to God’s plan, in much the same way as the existence of the hangman, however repellent — because repellent! — holds up the social order, so does suffering hold up the general temporal order. Maistre never quite gets at why this supposedly all-powerful, all-good God decided to make a universe with sentient beings destined to run afoul of his rules and suffer for it. Presumably, if the Chevalier bothered to ask that, rather than just tell Senator Maistre he’s a genius after every answer, Maistre would do a shell game involving causality or something. The usual mystic stuff.

The theology isn’t interesting, though it is weirdly off in places, for this supposed arch-Catholic, and most of the weirdness comes from Maistre’s insistence that, on earth, it actually does all make sense. That seems to be where his “illuminism” comes in, though I’ll admit, I’m a neophyte with this stuff. A lot of mystics – from Renaissance magicians to the Freemasons (back before they became a social club) to the Five Percenters – seem to understand the principle of “as above, so below” (never got why that was so compelling to people) implied that just as heaven is rightly ordered (again… why?), so too is Earth, if only we could see it. Oftentimes, they imply that happiness, peace, even superhuman power comes with somehow “grokking” this truth in its fullness. No waiting for divine redistribution of fates in the afterlife! It’s interesting, but also sad, mostly in the way it asks a sad question… which is more pathetic? Thinking that a divine figure will arrange things just so, make things somehow make sense, after you die, or thinking that you will, learn, magic your way to making this world make sense while still in it, the way God supposedly wants you (and really only you, and other people cool enough to do the thing) to do? I’ll punt to where I usually do: at least orthodox religion, with its series of IOUs payable on some judgment day, have substantial real estate portfolios on this earth, more than most of the heterodox can say. 

What intrigued me most about the Nights wasn’t its strangeness, but its continuities with other thought. Here, I’m influenced by a book I read back in my comprehensive exams days, when I ambitiously looked into all kinds of stuff my professors didn’t recommend or even know about, because, I don’t know, I did. One was a book on de Maistre’s influence by one Carolina Armenteros. It was a strange, fascinating book, that insisted that far from being a lonely figure on his mountain of Catholic reactionary obscurantism, Maistre was actually profoundly influential on French social and historical thought throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, his influence was less straightforwardly counter-enlightenment, in some easy “revolution and democracy equals bad, religion and monarchy equals good” kind of way, though he did believe those things. Rather, Maistre was important for his methodologies and research agendas, that generally complicated, and in some ways ran alongside, Enlightenment methodologies of social thought, rather than simply opposing them. 

And in these dialogues, you can see it. Maistre despised most of the lumieres, the Rousseaus and Voltaires, but he did not altogether abandon their methods in favor because… what other options were there? He was too old and unadaptable for the Romantic route, like fellow French Catholic reactionary Chateaubriand would take (one of the reasons Berlin’s Maistre takes were so blazingly wrong- he places Maistre in his hall of fame of Romantic, anti-rational bad guys, and that dog won’t hunt). He wasn’t going to get over with his reactionary thought that way. He’s a little bit closer to Burke in this respect, in that he tries to lay down an alternative path to collecting, refining, and disseminating knowledge that will work for a literate public to whom you can’t simply wave a cross or a flag as an explanatory method. Burke is closer to romanticism, even populism, encouraging his epigones to try to track the capillary methods through which the “little platoons” create – maybe congeal is the right word, or generate, if we’re being more generous – the great organic tree of society. 

But that’s not quite Maistre. In one sense of the word, Maistre was a rationalist: not in the degraded sense of “reasonable” (they’re not) but in terms of rationalist versus empiricist, working from first principles as opposed to from collecting observations. More than Voltaire or other salon Clever Dicks, Maistre hates Francis Bacon. But this isn’t for the usual “God is higher than Science” reasons we’re used to- it’s because Maistre believes he has a counter-science, a rationalist understanding of the universe superior to empiricism (not unlike Lyndon LaRouche, in this!). In his way, he was as devoted to the systematic exploration of the implications of his understanding as were any Enlightenment philosophes for theirs. This, presumably, is why the Soirees was his favorite work. 

French historians and social scientists – Chateaubriand, Comte, Saint-Simon – did not reject Enlightenment empiricism as thoroughly as de Maistre did. It’s also possible to overstate de Maistre’s rejection of facts- he clearly was a great reader and collector of information, such as he had access to. What he had in common with later French historical social thought was a way of arranging his facts, using facticity strategically to counter other schema of thought, specifically, the Enlightenment thought of the revolutionary era, which threatened to become hegemonic in France, arguably in Europe. Later French social thinkers could, like de Maistre, take on board the trope of empirical facts pointing to a hidden hand, to forces that aligned human societies and history that can only be seen by a sort of negative inference, what the record shows is possible (and, more to the point, impossible). It’s not quite Hegel’s dialectic, or Smith’s invisible hand- it’s altogether woolier and, well, more esoteric than that- the idea that the scholar’s role is to uncover these esoteric forces (later given a boost by the ways in which stuff we can’t see, from germs to electromagnetic waves, really do affect our lives). They presume a hidden hand- maybe not Maistre’s divine providence, but something. Later social scientists could turn these intellectual practices towards goals that, had they been alive to see it, Maistre might disapprove and his lumiere enemies might like better, such as Comte’s rational society run by sociologist-priests. But they are still living in, attempting to explore and articulate, a world where knowledge makes itself known via the application of value-laden rationalistic schema giving order to the welter of fact. You can see how that might find itself even further down the road, with your Foucaults and LaTours, though I’d tend to think that would be more a legacy de Maistre left on French thought rather than direct influence. 

Anyway! Who knows how much all of that really means. I do like spooky-ing up the French rationalist tradition. It’s no good taking people at their self-assessment without thorough examination, and the idea that the French really are more rational-as-in-reasonable than us Anglos never really washed. Rational as in schematic, sure… but their schemes might be weirder than all that. Among other things, rather disenchants our reactionary Lecter figure, too… That’s what allowed me to enjoy this as much as I did. Your mileage may vary. ****

Review – de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights”

Review – Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis”

Eric Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide” (2015) (read aloud by the author) – Some of you might know Eric Bogosian as an actor, a curly-haired, vaguely Elliot-Gould-like presence in such films as Uncut Gems and Under Siege 2, a spin on Law and Order, and at least one cinematic adaptation of his several renowned plays. I actually know a lady who was his personal assistant! She says he is great. In any event, he has also written this history book for a broad audience, and brings his storytelling instincts with him to make it a crisp read. He says he first thought of it as the potential basis for a screenplay, and once you know the story, you can see why.

The Armenian Genocide seemed likely to become — is, in some places, like Turkey, where it is forbidden to be taught about in schools — a footnote to the tragedy of the First World War. Those most directly responsible for the hundreds of thousands, upwards of 1.5 million, Armenian deaths, the leadership of the CUP (“Young Turks”) and their flunkies, easily escaped war crime trials helmed by the British and their Turkish collaborators in the immediate aftermath of the war. Many of them looked set to return, to join their former underling Mustafa Kemal in rebuilding Turkish power in Anatolia and the broader Middle East. The larger powers of the world didn’t care. The French and Italians soon lost their taste for their more ambitious meddlings in the Middle East; The British wanted their oil concessions, and would work with whoever they had to to get them; this also went more or less for the Americans, with more of the inconsistency (Wilson promising a League of Nations Mandate for Armenia, then Congress slapping him down) we’re used to from American imperialism; Russia was devastated by the war and the Revolution and mostly wanted a quiet Armenian Soviet Republic. The Armenians were on their own. 

But they were not without resources. As Bogosian reminds us in his crash course in Armenian history for his random anglophone readers, the Armenians are an old, old people. They’ve dealt with a lot of empires. They’re a diasporic community- and a strong diaspora, like it or not, does seem to be the sine qua non of which genocides get to be turned into moral stories, and even avenged, and those that become statistics as far as most of the world are concerned. As any resident of East Watertown, like myself, can tell you, Armenians, wherever they go, enjoy quite lively community life- there’s a half-dozen Armenian social clubs in my neighborhood, each seemingly attached to a different political faction with a long, hoary history, rivals to each other but they come out for their people when the chips are down. Some of Armenians, some of them diasporic, some of them who saw the slaughter that started in 1915, decided they would not let the world forget, nor the Young Turks get away with it. 

Operation Nemesis was a plan put into place by the Dashnak, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a socialist Armenian party that has gotten involved with all kinds of stuff all over the world in pursuit of their goal of a free, social democratic Armenia. Nemesis, named after the Greek goddess of righteous revenge, was the plan to track down the perpetrators of the Genocide and shoot them, one by one, wherever they were. More than avenging the Armenian people, it would also force the world to look what happened to them in the face. Bogosian tells us some of the planners — passionate young Shahan Natalie (one rather thinks he came up with the name), old stalwart Armen Garo — but his main focus is on young Soghomon Tehlirian. Tehlirian shot Talaat Pasha, arguably the single man most responsible for the genocide, one of a triumvirate of Pashas more or less running the Ottoman Empire during the war. He also surrendered to the Berlin police (this was 1921, near the beginnings of the Weimar Republic) and had his day in court. 

Courtroom scenes are irresistible to certain kinds of writers, and Bogosian seems like one. He’s right to put some focus on this one, as it’s pretty fascinating. Soghomon Tehlirian came from a family that had suffered from previous Turkish persecution of the Armenians. After centuries of living under relatively stable, if not exactly liberated, existence under Ottoman suzerainty, the Armenians came to receive the lion’s share of the violence of the Turkish elite trying to figure out how to hold on to its power as its antiquated system crumbled, under pressure from the rise of nationalism among its subject peoples and competition from growing European powers. There was already a revolutionary movement in Armenia, and many who looked to an Ottoman collapse to liberate their people- especially after the Young Turk movement, which came to power in Istanbul with the help of Armenian revolutionaries, turned violently on the Armenian community. So, Tehlirian joined a small unit of Armenians who volunteered to fight for Russia against the Ottoman Empire after World War One broke out. His family was killed while he was fighting mostly pointless engagements on the Caucasian frontier. 

This isn’t what Tehlirian told the German court. He told a story of surviving a massacre similar to the many, many which eyewitnesses recorded during the course of the genocide: Turkish gendarmes riding into town, killing some, forcing the others into the desert, and letting hunger and violence (sometimes official, sometimes from “paramilitaries,” often random civilians or Kurdish tribesmen) pick off the rest. Except he wasn’t there for any such massacres. He saw terrible things; he made himself a caretaker to dozens of children orphaned by the massacres and who were surviving on the edges of society. But he did not witness his family being beheaded. Plenty of families were beheaded- not the Tehlirians. 

The Dashnak instructed Tehlirian to lie on the stand, and coached him carefully to do so. They had several reasons for this. One was protection: the Dashnak was an illegal militant organization, and if the world knew that they were hunting Turkish genocidaires, that would be a serious problem, for themselves and for the surviving Armenian population. Another was drama. They wanted the stories to get out. Nothing Tehlirian said on the stand was beyond what the Turks actually did, over and over. Another consideration was Tehlirian slipping the noose, but the Dashnak network proved pretty good at getting their people out, post-mission, without making them do a trial first. Tehlirian was also a brilliant witness. He could play a man driven to divine vengeance, not some thuggish assassination, because it was true. He was epileptic and ridden with nightmares about his murdered family. In part due to sympathy, in part because they wanted to sweep Germany’s role in allowing their wartime allies to destroy the Armenian population under the rug, the German court acquitted Tehlirian of all charges. He died in Fresno in 1960, and you gotta figured that dude never had to pay for a drink in Fresno (good amount of Armenians there, I’m told) as long as he lived. 

Bogosian tells the story well. Some of his History 101 instruction for the reader has some mix-ups. One weird one was when he insists that the pre-WWI Germans sought relations with the Ottoman Empire, and built the Berlin-Baghdad railroad, as a plan to seek “lebensraum,” the agricultural “living space” Germany would eventually seek in Eastern Europe. I guess the idea was they were going to settle Anatolia? There’s no evidence of that, and plenty of evidence that the Germans wanted to prop Turkey up as an ally because its collapse would benefit their biggest rivals, Russia and Britain. There’s a few goofs like that in the book. Bogosian is a smart guy but not a historian. 

Still and all, it’s an amazing story, and he tells it well. Tehlirian may have been a somewhat nebbishy assassin. Some of those Dashnak guys were slick, though, and you can’t help but enjoy their derring-do. One dude, Arshavir Shirakian, improvised an attack on a group of Turkish war criminals he ran across in Berlin, and then escaped the police cordon by chit-chatting with a family group that hadn’t seen him just shoot a guy. The cops assumed he was a relative of this nice German family and let him right through. If the people of Armenia could be forgiven for thinking that the God they were among the first to embrace — Armenians will tell you, they were the first officially Christian kingdom, way back in four-hundred-something — abandoned them during the genocide. But some goddess of revenge dictated that the last of the three Pashas, who had the bright idea of joining the Bolsheviks, well beyond Dashnak’s reach, and then double-crossing the Bolsheviks to start some Pan-Turkic rebellion, got got in the end by a Cheka officer of Armenian extraction.

Are we still allowed to thrill at that kind of thing? Well, I’m going to, anyway. I’m aware of the reasons why smart people, even people who aren’t pacifists, don’t, generally, allow murders, even the assassinations of unrepentant killers intent on killing again, to excite them… openly. I am aware of the arguments. I’m aware that Nemesis did not bring any Armenians back to life, did not bring Armenia’s land back or create a stable, free Armenian state. I’m aware that revenge, generally, is unhelpful, especially between ethnic groups that are expected to live near each other, because it perpetuates a cycle of violence. I am aware that violence, even the killing of guilty enemies, is meant to do damage to the soul of the perpetrator. I am aware, lastly, that praising violence is generally the provenance of “the enemy,” the reactionaries and the bullies, those practiced at and comfortable with violence, generally against those weaker than them. I’m aware that beyond that principle, cheering on violence is often seen as “cringe,” the sort of thing cop groupies do, dividing good guys and bad guys and, surprise surprise! They are fans of the good. 

Well… tough. Nemesis wasn’t indiscriminate slaughter. The Armenian revolutionaries of all factions have made clear, over and over and over again, they want no generalized revenge against the Turkish people (they may not love them, but they don’t want to slaughter them all). They wanted the people who specifically singled them out for the horrors of genocide. They worked at it, and they got it. In fact, probably the closest the Dashnak people came to a serious strategic miscalculation was the idea that genocidal madness was restricted to the leaders of the Turks. I’m not willing to say all Turks wanted to slaughter Armenians, and in fact one group of participants — the Kurds — have even apologized for their role in the genocide, through a range of Kurdish political organizations. But enough Turks did desire that violence, and a larger number were prepared to look the other way, that you could argue that the Pashas were just expressing their will… and still. They probably made the situation better by preventing the worst actors from returning to Anatolia, and there really was no creating a real Armenian nation at the time, anyway. 

And while Bogosian does do some “oh, isn’t violence terrible for the soul” stuff… well, most of the violence that was terrible for the soul of the Armenians, in his telling and in theirs, was the violence that was done to their people. Soghomon Tehlirian slept reasonably well after getting his man, it seems. If Shirakian was soul-sick about the multiple war criminals he gunned down, he didn’t say so in his memoirs. The Dashnak people didn’t crow about blood. They weren’t sadists. They took a difficult and unpleasant job (though one with some emotional rewards) and did it. I don’t think there’s anything but sentimental mythology to tell us that such experiences, always and everywhere, hurt the mind or the soul worse than any other difficult, unpleasant task. Among other things, human psychology does not tend to be that straightforward. 

And doesn’t it damage the soul to allow world-historical criminals to go unpunished, to get back into power even? Some part of me thinks one of the things at the core of the madness the world is now seeing is how nobody, nobody, got punished for crimes that helped end the period of relative stability at the turn of the twenty-first century, the American invasions of the Middle East, the economic crash of 2008, etc. A few Icelandic scammers got thrown in Scandinavian summer camp prison and that was it. I can’t prove it, but I do tend to think it makes people crazy, that kind of inconsistency, when millions suffer and die for nothing and the perpetrators get to enjoy their lives, even continue to hold power. I’m not saying revenge always “works” or is worthwhile. But neither does, or is, the sort of secularized version of Nietzsche’s parody of Christianity that us lower-order types are expected to extend to our betters. The Armenian people refused this, resolved to set things right, and wrote another chapter in their long and honorable history in doing so. ****’

Review – Bogosian, “Operation Nemesis”

Review – Wald, “The New York Intellectuals”


Alan Wald, “The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left From the 1930s to the 1980s” (1987) – Trots! People love ‘em, people hate ‘em. Me? I’ve known good and bad, the same with most kinds of people. I’d say I’ve known more good. They’re kind of like Quakers or anabaptists- irritating, sometimes, and they expect you to know and care about their arcana, but when the chips are down, in the worst spots, there they are, on the right side… usually.

Arguably, the place where Trotskyists (I’m told there’s some kind of distinction between “Trotskyist” and “Trotskyite” which marks the user as a Stalinist- I’m trying to use the nice one! Sorry if I fucked it up!) have, arguably, come closest to real power is America… but only ex-trots. Many ex-Trotskyists wound up as prominent public intellectuals with at least some political pull, figures like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, and many more big names, like Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow, were in and around the general milieu of radical politics and modernist art in midcentury New York (do we count the thirties and forties as midcentury, or only sexy Mad Men times?). Then, they abandoned it. The radical politics, anyway, and sometimes modernism, or else they held on to a version of modernism that ossified over the decades into a new classicism. At least some of them became leading neoconservative writers during the era leading up to Reagan’s election to the presidency. 

Something between the time, the place, and the people allowed this set to call themselves “the New York Intellectuals,” with the definite article, and get away with it. Maybe in part because this is America and no one really wants to call themselves “intellectuals”- and there was, from the beginning, some irony here. Communist organizing is always funny about the role of intellectuals, and the way the Trotskyist groups in New York in the thirties tended to recruit disproportionately from intellectual circles certainly led to some hand-wringing about working class bona fides (let’s just say this is a dynamic with which I have personal familiarity). 

In a way, the process of becoming “The New York Intellectuals” allowed the worst impulses of a number of sides in the contretemps to confirm their pre-existing biases. Anti-intellectual communists could conclude that intellectuals will always betray them (never mind their whole tradition was started by a guy who never had a job that didn’t involve writing about ideas). The ex-trot intellectuals could conclude that all under the sun is irony and compromise and the “adult” thing to do is take what you can. American readers, such as they were — and there were more, and more serious, readers at the time in this country than at any other, before or since — could decide that this overdetermined shadow puppet show was just what intellectuals did and do and they could take it or, as the case would eventually be, leave it. 

Well! Let’s see if we can put the horse back before the cart, here. Alan Wald is a historian and a Trotskyist organizer himself. He has delved deeply into the archive of the American left, in this and other books. As such, he has a “dog in the fight,” and emphasizes the milieu’s time on the left, roughly from the Depression until the end of WWII, more than he does its time in national prominence, roughly from the fifties to the eighties. He’s strongly critical of his subjects, though, being on the Trotskyist side of things himself, he sees their story as, at least partially, a story of lost opportunity. Trotskyism could have been a contender, Wald broadly implies, but between confused direction from the man himself in Mexico City, the endless fissiparousness of the movement and its infamous splits, and sheer historical bad luck, American Trotskyism never reached what Wald saw as its potential. 

Most of the things that went wrong in the American Trotskyist movement had some unfortunate ironies attached, mostly concerning the role of intellectuals in revolutionary organizations and relations with their bete noir, the Stalinists in the CPUSA. Much like elsewhere, some of the best minds in America joined the Trotskyist bodies that arose in the thirties. And not just writers and academics clustered around the cafeterias at CCNY, either, but organizers too. Not for nothing did Trotskyists lead the legendary Teamster uprising in Minneapolis, and followers of sometimes-trot socialist pacifist A.J. Muste spearheaded the great Auto-Lite strike in Akron.  

But Wald mostly focuses on, like the title says, New York intellectuals, and it does seem like a lot of the leaders of the fragmented Trotskyist scene did too. American Trotskyism means facing down the national guard in Minneapolis. It also means people like James Burnham, a transparently self-seeking wannabe intellectual big shot who was clearly attracted to Trotskyism in part because some interpretations of Trotsky (and Lenin before him) implied a strong powerful role in intellectuals such as himself in the revolution and the post-revolutionary dispensation. When Burnham realized — pretty late, for a supposedly smart guy — that the left wasn’t the way to power, he turned his coat, going well to the right of most of the neocons. More generously, a lot of American well-wishers to the Russian revolution, disgusted by the butchery and betrayals of Stalin, invested Trotsky and his fledgling movement with hopes they couldn’t possibly have fulfilled at the time. These disappointed hopes compounded the inevitable frustrations involved in any organizing. Out of the crooked timbers of humanity nothing straight can be made, as another overachieving European put it, and that frustrates people, especially pedants. See, I’m something of a pedant for failure and disorder- that’s how I manage. 

They often hate each other, but Trotskyists and Maoists, in my experience, are alike in terms of their central method of managing disorder: the refinement and promulgation of doctrine, of “The Line.” They need to have answers to all questions. If they don’t, that would somehow mean that the transmission line of “scientific socialism” had been broken, or worse yet, lay with some rival faction. It has to go Marx-Lenin-Them, with these groups or else they’re not legitimate, somehow. And the line needs to cover every meaningful contingency. I get that this is an unhelpful mutation of an understandable impulse to develop explanatory mechanisms for the chaos of circumstance, to avoid the sort of unplanned (often degenerating into unprincipled) back-and-forth that characterizes so many other political actors. But I’ll admit, it was never my thing, and its excesses often make me queasy. “Bourgeois intellectualism” on my part, I guess, though that rather strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black. 

Anyway- Leon Trotsky died at a deeply inconvenient time, that is, before he could issue some kind of directive to his followers that would allow them to take a “line” on the Second World War that made any goddamn sense at all. Instead, you got a pained hodge podge, where the Trotskyist sects all tried to make themselves seem more correct to the words of the prophet (uttered, it’s worth nothing, before Hitler started gobbling up Europe): that any future war would be a simple inter-imperialist squabble and that the role of the vanguard should be to sit it out and encourage both sides to lose. This was, after all, what the Bolsheviks called for in 1918, and it worked out for them (eventually). 

Wald can admit that it was a “bad look” in wartime America for the Trotskyists to equivocate about who was the bad guy in the situation. He points, for good reason, to the sheer bald-faced opportunism of the Stalinists, who went from supporting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to embracing the war effort, and even undermining allied union organizers and anti-racist efforts to do so. But Wald misses the fact that all that means is it should have been a layup for the Trotskyists- support the war and antifascism, support the Double V and union efforts, agitate for a just peace. But, at least in part because of the many Trotskyist factions competing with each other to seem most legitimate, none of them could convey any such simple message. 

The failures of the Trotskyist groups during the war — along with the fact that the other, err, “socialist alternatives” at the time were equally unappealing — provided a lot of intellectuals a convenient exit strategy, but most of them were probably looking for the door well before then. There were, if you can believe it, even more reasons — more spaces on the little game board track, “move your piece X spaces away from radical organizing” — to quit socialist or communist movements then than there are today. The micro-physics of sectarianism in the thirties and forties was at least as vicious as the social media wars of today, as the careers of people like Max Shachtman (some of you may recognize that name from a throwaway line in “Inside Llewyn Davis”) attest to. Throughout the organizing space, the rocks of ego, stupidity, circumstance went smashing into each other erratically and made ejecta of many a potential movement leader. McCarthyism took hold, and like the situation with the war, the Trotskyists, while often seeing the stakes reasonably clearly, could not organize a coherent response, especially if it meant making common cause with the dreaded Stalinists. 

What’s more, there was a lot more in the way of opportunity then than there is now. One thing the endless line-refining and inter-group squabbling in little magazines that characterized Trotskyism proved to be pretty good training for was the boom in public intellectual life that occurred in the US after WWII. There was a bigger market than ever before for intelligent, critical — but not too critical! — writing on politics and culture. Academia was also expanding, and the barriers keeping Jews out of the academy started coming down. One of the things that had impelled many young intellectuals in the thirties away from the CPUSA and towards Trotskyism was the Stalinist’s insistence on kitschy socialist realism and disgust for any kind of artistic experiment. Ironically, Trotsky himself, while much less of a cultural philistine than Stalin, wasn’t exactly the proponent of free experimentation in the arts that his American followers might have wished for, but he had bigger fish to fry by the time he was in exile. 

The upshot is, a lot of major critics with an investment in modernism were at political loose ends after the end of the war, around the time when the American foreign policy establishment — themselves a richer, WASPier group of pedants and weirdos not totally dissimilar from the pedantic weirdos in the New York Intellectual scene — embraced modernism as a symbol of the freedom and progress to be had under American-style liberal democratic capitalism. It became a fat time for the people around magazines like Partisan Review, Commentary, and the universities. 

I would have liked to have seen more of that story, how these people went from “State Department socialists” and “Cold War liberals” to out and out neoconservatives (or, in a few cases, got more radical again in the sixties). It’s been told elsewhere but I’d be interested in Wald’s take. It seems like it’s a story involving race and money, and neither of those seem to be the subjects Wald is most comfortable with, preferring his (generally quite sharp and compelling) close readings of texts and the sort of biographical interpellations of all sorts of Trotskyism-adjacent cultural figures that dot the text. I often struggle with tone in these reviews, and I probably don’t convey how rich this book is when trying to give my analysis. These people lived interesting lives, and if they failed — if they failed themselves, in many cases — at least they often did so in compelling ways. I’m curious to track down Wald’s work on the broader American literary left sometime soon. ****’

Review – Wald, “The New York Intellectuals”

Review – Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring”

Nalo Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring” (1998) – I gotta level with you all, readers: until maybe a month before I started this book, I thought it was about a brown girl living in a ring habitat, as seen in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” which I recently reviewed. This is why I paired that book with this in the election gimmick I did, where I had Citizens vote on themed pairs of books! I thought it would specifically show up the racism of classic scifi writers. Niven wasn’t the worst with that but he wasn’t the best, having contributed to the pretty racist “Lucifer’s Hammer” with Jerry Pournelle. I thought the brown girl would be in the ring and show all those engineering Marty Stu’s what for, or something.

This wasn’t that! It’s actually an old Carribean children’s song sung to a ring game kids would play. Many of the chapters are opened by the lyrics of similar games. It also stands for the ring around which semi-post-apocalypse Toronto, the setting of this novel, is surrounded. First Nations sued Ontario so bad they had to give up on its biggest city! The Toronto-dwellers are trapped. This was written in the nineties so maybe the city was a bit less tidy/gentrified than it is today… Arguably, “the ring” is also the ring of combat against the fate to which Ti-Jeanne, the titular girl, might otherwise be stuck in.

Ti-Jeanne is a young woman with a baby, a missing mother, a formidable grandmother who practices West Indian spirit magic, and a fuckboy ex-lover who has one foot in and one foot out of post-apocalypse Toronto’s gang scene. She doesn’t have it all that bad, as far as survivors of a trapped dead city go. You see a fair amount of the city going about its life, surviving in its ruin, making little farms and businesses and stuff. 

Alas, Ti-Jeanne also has a tendency to see spirits, and the future. She’d rather not be involved with the spirit world of her grandmother, dreaming of running off to the burbs with her ex-, Tony, but the spirit world has its own idea. So, too, does the Prime Minister of Canada, who needs a heart. Despite the fact that they’ve perfected using pig organs in this future, the PM wants a human heart, for political reasons. So, her fixers contact the gangs in the Toronto wasteland for a fresh human heart. Guess who the gang boss, Rudy, jobs it out to? Tony, the fuckboy ex, who stole from Rudy to fund his drug habit! Fuck!!

Ti-Jeanne and her family come into conflict with Tony, who can never decide if he wants to use grandma Gros-Jeanne’s magic to disappear and escape, or to just cooperate with Rudy. Rudy, in turn, turns out to be a lot scarier (and more connected to Ti-Jeanne) than anyone figured, largely through the strength of using the dark side of the West Indian/Caribbean magical tradition, making zombies and enslaving duppies, the spirits of the dead. He wants to finish off the assorted Jeannes and consolidate his hold over Toronto. 

Rudy comes for Tony and Ti-Jeanne, with gunmen and dark magic. Ti-Jeanne has to accept her role as a seer and ritual daughter of the spirit of the crossroads, even though it’s scary and weird. Good magic, in the fine old way, doesn’t help as directly as evil magic in scary situations, but evil magic comes with much higher costs. 

In general, this was pretty fun. Some of the blurbs and what have you recommend reading it for social commentary, but I didn’t see much of that, beyond the idea that men are maybe a tad unreliable. I think people just say that about books with protagonists who aren’t white men, or upper class white women. It doesn’t need the answer to racism or a particularly innovative plot, when it has well-paced action, some good gore and spooky stuff, and cromulent characters. It can be a good, fun book, which is all anyone needs it to be. ****

Review – Hopkinson, “Brown Girl in the Ring”

Review – Knecht, “Who Is Vera Kelly?”

Rosalie Knecht, “Who Is Vera Kelly?” (2018) (read aloud by Elisabeth Rodgers) – This one was a bit disappointing. I didn’t know a ton about it, probably found out about it from an LARB article or something, put it on my wishlist, got a copy for christmas or a birthday. It’s about a CIA lady spy in Buenos Aires in the sixties, the titular Vera Kelly. She’s no femme fatale or Bond Girl, she’s a bisexual woman from a tragic upper middle class family who gets picked up by the Company from the Greenwich Village gay scene. The blurbs didn’t give a super-involved description of what she’s up to in the book, but hey, Cold War Buenos Aires, spy shit, gay lady, sounds novel, let’s give it a try.

I suppose if I were to try to classify this, with my very non-exhaustive knowledge of the spy fiction genre, I would say it’s roughly in a le Carre mold. It’s more about the inner state of the spy and the spy’s interactions with others than it is about action and derring-do. I love all of the John le Carre I’ve read so I’m into the model, but it also seems harder to carry off than what Fleming, Ludlum etc were up to. 

Vera is reasonably interesting. You hear a lot about her troubled upbringing. She’s on her own in Buenos Aires, setting up bugs to spy on politicians, students, and so on. She has a handler back up in Langley sending her money and instructions, but no real backup. A coup (a real one, that led to a military government takeover in 1966) comes around, and she’s betrayed by a local contact and has to figure out how to survive. She doesn’t seduce any enemies in the classic sexist spy lady way, but she is able to stay low to the ground by crashing with a hookup.  

The big problem is that there is no compelling mystery and no compelling bad guys or side characters. The local who betrays her is just sort of uninteresting, a Peronist heavy. The students she spies on are stereotypes of fiery upper-class radicals of the Latin American stripe, and the hook-up she stays with is a gormless Texan dude (Vera is passionate about loving women, but dabbles with dudes). She has to get out of Buenos Aires. It takes some doing, but she does. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t great, and I was expecting more. Apparently she quits the Company and becomes a private eye in later installments? Maybe I’ll do another “let’s try this disappointing genre series again” election and put that on the ballot. ***

Review – Knecht, “Who Is Vera Kelly?”

Review – Chafkin, “The Contrarian”

Max Chafkin, “The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power” (2021) (read aloud by Will Damron) – I’m a little behind on reviews. This was a pretty good audiobook about a juicy subject, but god help me if I’m not stuck on one weird thing. Journalist Max Chafkin, in relating the story of billionaire tech investor and political wirepuller Peter Thiel’s childhood, to portray the boy Thiel as bullied. California in the seventies, Peter Thiel a weird, hostile, skinny nerd, not hard to believe. That said, the one example anecdote Chafkin could pull out was some of Thiel’s high school classmates going around their town, stealing “for sale” signs, and setting them up on Thiel’s house’s front yard in the night. They then asked Thiel when he got to school “hey, you’re moving?!”

I mean… that doesn’t sound that bad? That actually doesn’t sound bad at all? Sounds kind of goofy? Maybe if there was an implied threat, like, “you better leave town,” but Chafkin didn’t imply there was, and probably wouldn’t leave it unsaid if there was. 

Beyond it just sticking in my head, why do I lead with this? Ultimately, I tell this story because it illustrates the ways in which Thiel was shaped — and then went on to shape himself — the myths and lacunae of late capitalist culture in the US. More than a bullied kid, Thiel seems like one of those kids who just doesn’t like anything, someone who never outgrew a sort of infantile colic (I’ve known kids like that- and other kids do wind up bullying them, in part because damn near any interaction with kids afflicted that way turn out to be experienced as bullying). It’s not quite depression, at least not as I know it, just a general disdain for and dissatisfaction towards the world. His parents, German immigrants, sound unpleasant, but not abusive. Who knows how people get that way? But “bullied nerd makes good, takes revenge” is part of the Silicon Valley myth. Thiel probably believes it- Chafkin, normally pretty perceptive, might have gotten taken for that ride, too. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Generation X lately, for my birthday lecture. They all thought they got dealt a pretty shitty hand, and it didn’t help that many of them came of age during the recession in the late eighties/early nineties, but really, it was about as good a time as any for a superficially smart white American with ideas and grudges. Thiel didn’t start out as a tech guy. He started out as a politics guy. In eighties Stanford, he edited a review, like the ones Anne Coulter had at Cornell and Dinesh D’Souza had at Dartmouth, dedicated to ponderous conservative essay-writing next to brazen bigoted provocation. More than promoting any policy agenda, Thiel just hated the culture around him, though even that is more myth than reality. Thiel said his issue was the permissiveness, hedonism, and lack of standards supposedly inherited from the sixties counterculture. But like… at Stanford? The most preppy school in Northern California? It wasn’t that countercultural, never was. Maybe hedonistic, in a lightweight collegiate way, but still. The point is, Thiel hated, and put himself in the script that allowed that hate to flourish. 

He became a corporate lawyer in New York and tried to get into higher-end political law by clerking for federal judges. At some point he got sick of it, went back out west, and started a hedge fund. This was the mid-nineties, and one of his investment fields was online payment systems. You could say Thiel has a decent nose for opportunities. You’d probably be right, but again, it’s possible to overstate, and he’s banked on some weird shit over time too. Part of his motivation to look into moving money online was his anti-statism. He was a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon,” all about daring tech entrepreneurs chasing gold to make a non-state crypto-currency (I read that book myself several times as a teenager- these days, I’d say it’s mid-rank Stephenson). Eventually, all of this led to PayPal.

One interesting point Chafkin makes is the inflection point Thiel’s rise represents in internal Silicon Valley culture. There was always a ruthlessness there- it’s capitalism, and the military-industrial complex always had a major hand in the tech industry. But it was, if not tempered, then modulated by countercultural values and promises. Hippie bullshit didn’t stop Steve Jobs from being a dick to all and sundry (until some genius convinced him he could stop cancer with juice); it did stop him from crowing about it, and perhaps inflected the culture around his businesses, making for a mellower corporate culture. Chafkin depicts Thiel, whose original bugbear was hippies, as leading the turn away from this ethos, to the “move fast and break stuff” era. The counterculture-cyberculture lineage had a vision of a sort of techno-pastoral idyll as the end point – the anarcho-capitalist Thielian vision is more like rolling around a blasted Earth in a robot body, absorbing hippies and other lesser breeds for the energy in their blood. Ironically, both are meant to be visions of liberation. 

Chafkin entertainingly relates the twists and turns in Thiel’s career. He fucked over Elon Musk — Musk spoke on the record about Thiel to Chafkin, seemingy in tones of wistful regret “but make it stupid” — and Meg Whitman at Ebay and whoever else he felt he could get a dollar out of. It’s a mistake to make too strong of a distinction between the hacker as hippie and the hacker as hateful nerd: both take glee in breaking rules, and Thiel certainly did plenty at PayPal. Say what you want about Apple, but it did and does make a product that people want, that’s different from what came before. Thiel was a pioneer of that other way to make a bundle: backdoor deregulating an industry, destroying competitors through the competitive advantages unpunished rule-breaking gives you, and establishing a monopoly. That’s what PayPal did, up to and including facilitating fraud and burning through millions of dollars of venture capital to lose money to hook people on their product. This is what a number of later Silicon Valley unicorns, most of which Thiel invested in, did and do as well- Uber, Airbnb, on and on. 

It’s another myth, the myth of disruption. Disruption “works” in the sense of “succeeds” — within the structures we live in, you can make a lot of money doing it. Maybe that’s the typical Gen X thing- acting like exploiting what we already have is the supreme genius, and that trying to create something fundamentally different is the ultimate stupidity. In any event, Thiel also sought to “disrupt” politics. He took the same view of establishment politics as he did of the likes of Meg Whitman- Thiel may be pro-capitalism, but he hates most successful capitalists for being office creatures, not Randian entrepreneurial supermen like himself. There’s a conspiracy, you see, of intellectuals and administrators — the bad kind of nerds — to lord it over both normal people and, crucially, entrepreneurs and visionaries (good nerds, for those keeping score) through rules, regulations, and encouraging cultural values inimical to the people who (supposedly) create value. Thiel, and other Silicon Valley right-wingers like Balaji Srinivasan and Thiel’s court philosopher, Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin, think they can disrupt this government/academia/corporate complex the same way Uber disrupted taxis. 

As it turns out, Thiel could do a lot in that vein, but not enough to satisfy. He could destroy Gawker for its cheek in covering him negatively (also, for violating his privacy in the matter of his sexuality — he was partially in the closet when Gawker publicly wrote about him being gay — but it seems clear he would have gone after them anyway). And he invested in Donald Trump’s political career back when everyone thought the alliance between the Silicon Valley giants and the Democratic Party would last forever. That’s one of his bigger “everyone thought he was crazy but he was right” moments. He celebrated the victory alongside his friend, openly racist blogger Moldbug Yarvin. 

It wasn’t really to be, though. Disrupt something big enough, and you can’t control it. Something the old hippie capitalists could have told Thiel- at times, you need to surrender control, blah blah surfing, etc etc taoism. Needless to say, Trump’s personal style and that of Thiel did not mesh. Thiel didn’t succeed in his big goal of appointing his people on to various regulatory boards, in order to “destroy the administrative state” or whatever, really stick it to those bad nerds. You have to wonder… does he really not notice how sickly the regulatory state was already? Maybe half a regulatory state makes people even madder than a real one… but in any event, Trump couldn’t do whatever it is Thiel wanted him to do. 

The world still irks Thiel. It makes sense, because the world still has the source of all of Peter Thiel’s troubles in it, in the form of Peter Thiel. He can’t understand that, though, so he has to pour everything into narcissistic fantasies: New Zealand bugout bunkers, seasteading, life extension. Thiel’s on record as saying that he sees death as the ultimate evil. Revealing my own personal biases, there are few postures I respect less than an exaggerated fear of natural death. Especially from someone, like Thiel, who quite clearly does not actually enjoy life! So yeah, uhh, this dude sucks. The way he sucks is interesting, somewhat. One funny thing about contemporary life: we’ve put so much power at in the hands of so few people, and have ensconced hierarchy and elitism so thoroughly in the structures of life, that there’s a certain extent to which a few key people really are crucial to the functioning of many key bodies, organizations, and movements. Get rid of Trump, Musk, Thiel, and it’s pretty clear there’s no replacement, not really- someone can take their offices, but not their mana. It’s not because they’re actually that smart, talented, or even charismatic. It’s just a function of how power works, now. You’d figure people would draw some obvious strategic conclusions from that… but that’s not Chafkin’s job, here. ****’

Review – Chafkin, “The Contrarian”

Review – Niven, “Ringworld”

Larry Niven, “Ringworld” (1970) – The “soft versus hard” distinction in science fiction, like a lot of similar guidelines, should not be taken too seriously or schematically. Among other things, some of the most distinguished hard scifi writers can’t quite keep themselves from one or another magic-like technology: faster than light travel, various unobtaniums. And why shouldn’t they? Especially the “golden age” writers, who lived through so many technological developments that would have seemed like magic when they were kids? To me, the distinction seems to be more about what bases writers use for their speculation.

So, despite faster than light travel and various super-materials, I think it makes sense to call Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” hard scifi. I say all that less because the distinction is that important in and of itself, but because this is paradigmatic of the kind of scifi that begins with an engineering concept and works it’s way out from there. Larry Niven basically decided to one-up his buddy, the scientist Freeman Dyson. Dyson came up with the “Dyson sphere,” where super-advanced spacefaring civilizations could use all the matter not otherwise in use in their solar systems to encircle their suns in shells of matter, thereby absorbing all of the sun’s energy and unlocking limitless technological potentials (for everyone to sit around and browse the internet all day, later writers insisted). Niven said, why bother with the shell? Why not just a ring? A ring that encircles a star, with about the radius of Earth’s distance from the sun. You could implant all kinds of habitats on it and spin it. Bingo- trillions of square miles, all the room you’d need.

Ring habitats have since become a trope in science fiction, so I maybe didn’t have the same sense of wonder readers were supposed to get at the sheer scope of the idea when I read it (or the same feeling that the perspective characters were supposed to have encountering it). We only get to the ring about halfway through the book. First, a crew must be recruited by a member of a weird old muppet-looking alien race. It includes a member of a cat-people race whose culture is basically Klingon, and two inhabitants of post-scarcity spacefaring Earth, a bold rational enterprising man and a naive sexy lady who may or may not be preternaturally lucky. The muppet-alien wants to know what the deal is with an astronomical anomaly (in keeping with classic scifi, every alien race has one main characteristic, and for the “puppeteers” as they’re known, it’s caution that shades into cowardice). That anomaly is the ring.

Messed up by its automated defenses, the crew crash lands on the ring. The creators of the ring — or anyone with anything near the technological know-how to create such a stupendous artifact — are nowhere to be found. There’s oceans the size of planets, a massive eye construct, deadly laser plants, villages full of primitives who worship engineers as gods, etc. In order to get home, the crew needs to find out what happened to the “Ringworld engineers,” as they’re known. So there’s a whole series of adventures they have to go through to figure stuff out, the various alien representatives bickering all the while. Many of the adventures serve more to show off the features Niven came up with for his world — giant rotating shades to create the illusion of night and day! Hyperfast elevators to the top of the walls of the ring that the engineers could use! — than to advance the plot. 

This was pretty fun scifi. Not mind-blowing, far from enlightened attitudes (especially about gender and about progress), but basically enjoyable. I’m aware Niven was one half of the genocide-fantasy-pair Niven and Pournelle and a big right-wonder, backer of Reagan’s “star wars,” and if you know how to read that stuff back it shows up here. There’s that weird sort of social-technological darwinism, that the most rational and enterprising people (ie, those most like scifi protagonists, ie, those most like how a lot of scifi writers fondly imagined themselves) develop the best tech so they beat everyone else, only laid low by cosmic accident, etc. Stick to that too rigorously and you can wind up some odd places. Still, it was pretty good for a recreational read. ****

Review – Niven, “Ringworld”